Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Rwanda Facing Change Trip

Here are some thoughts & reflections from the students, as well as a variety of the pictures we took!

Check out the story about our trip in the Penn Gazette

at http://www.upenn.edu/


Genocide Memorial

Max Cohen

As I descended the steep wooden staircase from the Nyamata church's ground level into the mass grave, reality gave me a slap in the face. I stopped in my tracks, standing over the threshold of the dark, musty passageway at the bottom of the stairs, because I saw that the passage was flanked by shelves from floor to ceiling that held nothing other than the skulls and bones of thousands of victims.

Upon reflection, I realize that I didn't totally lack preparation for such an unnerving sight. I knew we were going to a mass grave. Under the church, I had just been shown the coffin of a woman who had been raped twenty times before being killed slowly over an agonizing two-day period. And the doubted faith in humanity that several of my companions so regretfully expressed later that day was something I felt I had more than internalized over a semester in a Holocaust literature class.

Nonetheless, I was utterly floored. It took me several moments to overcome a sense of imminent claustrophobia and my initial impulse to simply flee the bones. I instead continued into the depths of the mass grave. No glass display case separated my friends and me from the bones, nor was there any space between the passageway and the shelves. We were so close and unobstructed from the skulls that we could have simply reached out and touched them. This only intensified the sensation that the hollow cavities that once housed the victims' eyes seemed to be glaring at me, demanding justification for my existence. I felt immersed in horror.

Uncertain what to do next as I emerged from the mass grave, I settled on attempting to somehow be present with all the emotions and thoughts that, like pistons, were pumping the connection between my heart and my mind. I sat on the single stair next to the grave, in a form of meditation. I either reached that meditative state of mindfulness (or mindlessness), or else I fell asleep.

In the reflections of that meditation, the subsequent interfaith memorial service our group held, and the few days since we visited Nyamata, the most sense I can make of that experience was that it peeled back a layer between me and reality. If encountering genocide is, as Primo Levi expresses in his "The Periodic Table", a kind of anti-Sinai experience, I'm not so sure whether I welcome the morbid revelation of this side of human nature.

It's Not About the Safari
Elisheva Goldberg

It is not often that I wake up at 5 in the morning. (Or that I awake again at 5:05 and then for a third and final time at 5:10.) But today was a day that does not often occur. It was one of those days that you remember because it's blazed into your mind. And it'll stay there -- because you want it to.

Our entire group was outside, watching one of the most beautiful sunrises on this great earth, by
5:30. Shades of orange melding with the pink and yellow of a new day ushered us to the jeeps we would be riding in for the majority of the coming 10 hours. Watching Rwanda wake up was inspiring. Humna, sitting next to me, said that sights like the one unfolding outside our window reaffirmed her belief in God. As the sun rose, clouds bathed the valleys and gently caressed the hills. All seemed shrouded in a magical mist, prophesying adventure.

We spent the day on Safari. I'd read stories, seen National Geographic episodes, and even heard from people who had been, what an "African Safari" was like. But to see such powerful, majestic creatures before your own eyes takes the power of those stories, episodes and hearsay evidence and leaves them in the dust. Everyone's favorite animal might have been the baboons -- they were curious, entertaining creatures that walked with their tails in the air and reminded us uncannily of ourselves. But all of the other animals, from the imposing buffalo that we thought was on its way to charging our car to the stoic, oddly shaped giraffes standing in their field eating acacia (we learned they had been imported in a group of four and now number more than sixty), to the zebra and the hippos and the impala (beautiful African antelope with little white feet), made the ride through the Akagera National Park a peek into the rich natural life and beauty of both Rwanda and the broader African continent.

As phenomenal as the Safari itself was, the highlight of my day was really the remaining seven hours spent in the car with members of our group. Despite the deep red dust and the sticky heat, we joked and talked and sang about religion and life, love and college, reality and law. The sense camaraderie (the Kavana, or intention, for the day) ran deep. We've had eleven full days together -- and we've meshed. Become one. Joined together. Become cohesive. Molded ourselves into new selves that include one another. The community that we've built - through our service, our discussions, our common love for the students here - has all brought this group of very different people together in ways that none of us foresaw. Our "Thorns and Roses" session tonight was filled with laughter. But our last day is tomorrow. We will do our service project in the morning, go to lunch as usual, have one final discussion, attend dinner -- and then pack. It is hard to leave a place where so much has happened in so little time. But it is also wonderful to leave such a place. We are now more than we were when we came.

They say that people are more than the sum of their parts, more than the totality of their experience. I think that this place has been one of experience, but also one which will take us beyond experience and animate us with a sense of self and of purpose that goes beyond the mere "story" of our time in Rwanda. There are elements of this story that cannot be told. There are aspects of it that are emotional, irrational, spiritual. None of these things lend themselves easily to words. But if I can tell you that I can't tell you, perhaps that is enough for you to trust me when I respond with the simple word "amazing" when you are looking for when you ask me how my trip was.

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